October 13, 2013

Johnny Hockey: Gaudreau has unfinished business

By Andrew Merritt

Johnny Gaudreau’s BC résumé already includes a Beanpot MVP, scoring title, Hockey East crown and NCAA banner. (Photos: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

Johnny Gaudreau needs to eat a healthy breakfast.

When you try to pick apart the flaws in a player who came a few votes short of winning the Hobey Baker Award, you end up finding out that the player needs to set aside time each morning to have something substantial to eat before his first class of the day.

There are probably a few more things Johnny Gaudreau can improve upon in his third year at Boston College, but not many. Since he came to The Heights in the fall of 2011, he has won a national championship (2012), a Hockey East title (2012), the league scoring title (2013), a World Junior Championship (2013), a Beanpot MVP (2012), All-Hockey East first-team honor and an All-America East first-team selection (2013). Had he decided to leave after his sophomore season and join the Calgary Flames, who drafted him 104th overall in 2011, it would be hard to argue that he left too much to be done at BC.

However, Gaudreau wants to earn his degree in communications, and having two years’ worth of credits to finish is a tough hill to climb.

Besides, he’s got to work on eating breakfast.

Gaudreau is listed at 5-foot-8, 159 pounds, and while he looks like a normal human being as he sits in an athletic department conference room on a warm September morning, when the season begins in October he’ll be surrounded by young men much larger than he — and even they aren’t as well-built as the behemoths waiting for Gaudreau to come to the NHL.

So one of the few things he still wants to work on in college is his size, which means sticking to a slightly earlier morning routine.

“We have those early classes at 9 a.m., so it’s about making sure I don’t sleep ’til 8:50, but get up 25 minutes early and head to the cafeteria and get a good meal in me, and then go to class,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind those extra minutes of sleep, but I know gaining weight and getting my meals in throughout the day are important for me.”

Gaudreau’s small stature isn’t out of place at BC, where size-challenged players like Brian Gionta, Patrick Eaves and Nathan Gerbe have thrived in a system employed by coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.) that urges creativity and speed, not just brute force. In fact, the success of smaller players is one of the reasons why, in 2011, Gaudreau came to Chestnut Hill after opting out of his commitment to Northeastern, where coach Greg Cronin (Arlington, Mass.) had just departed for a spot on the Toronto Maple Leafs bench.

That decision didn’t just affect Gaudreau’s future. Considering the way his first two years as a collegian have played out, it changed the shape of both Northeastern and Boston College’s fortunes. Gaudreau wasn’t the only player Northeastern lost that summer after Cronin’s departure — his younger brother also made the switch to BC — but he was certainly the one with the most obvious and immediate impact.

“When Coach Cronin left, it was obviously a big concern for me and my brother Matty, because we were both going there,” Gaudreau said. “What I was really concerned about was the assistant coach, Albie O’Connell; he was the one who recruited me, and I really loved him as a coach and recruiter. I was kind of seeing how he would play out. Then he left.

“We thought, ‘We got recruited by a whole different coaching staff, why would we stay here?’ So we decommitted, and then we revisited Northeastern because we liked the school so much. We met with Coach (Jim) Madigan and one of the assistants, but the last time we visited schools we never got to see BC and BU, UVM, UNH. I really liked the atmosphere here at BC, how close it was to the city, the ‘small’ history with players in past years.”

Gaudreau was only months removed from winning a USHL championship at the time, having helped the Dubuque Fighting Saints take the 2011 title in their first year of existence. Being on that team came from a big decision as well, as Gaudreau decided it was time to leave his home in Carneys Point, N.J. — leaving behind his parents, Jane and Guy, as well as younger brother Matt and sisters Kristen and Katie.

“I was ready to try to do it on my own. I know my mom wasn’t very happy with me leaving her when I was only a senior in high school,” he said. “But I was excited to get the chance to live with players, be out there on my own with just my team, and go to school somewhere I’d never heard of.”

Gaudreau that year scored 36 goals and 36 assists, the leading point scorer for a team that included former Boston University standout Vinny Saponari before his transfer to Northeastern, as well as Zemgus Girgensons, picked 14th overall by Buffalo in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, current Vermont Catamount Nick Luukko and several other current Division 1 players.

The next step was going to be Matthews Arena, where he and Matt were both recruited by Cronin, O’Connell and Sebastien Laplante. All three coaches were gone after the 2010-11 season, so the Gaudreau brothers decided to reconsider their collegiate destination.

“I know we had a really good freshman class coming in that year (at Northeastern), and I know four or five kids decommitted and then a few kids left, but I think we would have had a really good team that year,” the elder Gaudreau said. “The class we had, I had a couple buddies in that class, and we were excited to go there. But thankfully I came here, and I’ve had a pretty good two years here. I’ve been fortunate to play here at BC.”

BC has certainly been fortunate to have him. As a freshman, he was the MVP of the Hockey East tournament, which the Eagles won thanks in part to his three goals and four assists during the playoffs. They advanced through the NCAA tournament to the national championship game, where Gaudreau had a goal in BC’s 4-1 win over Ferris State for the program’s fifth national title and third in five years.

“When I first saw him, I thought, ‘That kid’s pretty small,’ but after our first captains’ practice it was obvious that it wasn’t going to be problem at all,” said BC senior Bill Arnold (Needham, Mass.). “Has so much skill, so shifty, so much hockey sense, that his size was never going to be a problem for him.”

While the team couldn’t replicate the magic last season, Gaudreau was even better as a sophomore. His 51 points led all Hockey East scorers, and his 1.46 points per game average was the best mark in the nation — better even than national scoring champion Rylan Schwartz of Colorado College, who had only two more points than Gaudreau all year.

And he continues to impress. His teammates are still blown away by what he does on the ice and by his ability to help the team.

“He’s been our guy for a year,” Arnold said. “He was a Hobey finalist, he’s used to it. Even as a freshman, he’s been our go-to guy when he’s on the ice. Johnny’s definitely prepared — he’s probably top three, if not the number one most skilled hockey player I’ve ever played with.”

His coach, who has overseen some of the best talent in the nation for 40 years — the last 19 at BC — can be surprised by what Gaudreau does.

“No question, he’ll make something out of absolutely nothing,” York said. “You think the play is over, and not only does it continue but it results in a scoring chance. He’s such an intelligent player, he brings that whole element to hockey.

“He’s playing chess, and a lot of us are playing checkers.”

Even the man who could have been his coach at Northeastern has nothing but praise for Gaudreau.

“He’s really focused, determined, with a lot of inner, quiet confidence,” Madigan (Milton, Mass.) said. “What you see on the ice, the skill and the hockey sense is at a high level. He’s a strong skater, but when you look at him at that size, two things that jump out at me are his hockey intelligence, which is at an NHL level, and his skill level. He makes his teammates better, he doesn’t take shifts off, and he’s a competitor every day.

“He’s been the best player for my money in this league the last two years. It’s the consistency that he brings, and his ability to just make the players better around him.”

This is a big year for Gaudreau. As a freshman, he was a phenom, but he didn’t have to be perfect every night with the likes of Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.) and Tommy Cross (Simsbury, Conn.) also on the ice. Last year, Pat Mullane (Wallingford, Conn.) and Steven Whitney (Reading, Mass.) ensured Gaudreau wasn’t the only player for opposing teams to worry about. This year, Gaudreau’s got Arnold and Kevin Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.) there to back him up, but it’s clear that the expectations for a player who pumped in 21 goals and 30 assists last year are somehow even higher.

“People say to me, ‘How could he get much better? He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker as a sophomore, he was an All-American,’ ” York said. “But he wants to get better. He wants to be elite. He wants to do all of it in a team setting. He wants our team to be as good as it can be. He’s just a pleasure to coach, and to be around.”

He’s a junior this year, and there’s plenty of reason to think it could be his final season at BC, with Calgary hoping he’ll eschew his senior year in favor of a pro contract. But first, he’s got a full season ahead of him, and he’s still got some things he wants to improve.

“He watches players like (Chicago’s Patrick Kane) play and (the Bruins’ Patrice) Bergeron play, and he’s not at that level yet, and he wants to get there,” York said. “He wants to be better and better.”

One of his former teammates, who’s getting his own taste of the next step, is confident Gaudreau will fit in fine once he decides to go pro.

“Obviously I don’t have it all figured out, but (he) just (needs to) keep playing fast,” said Patrick Wey, who made a return to Boston with the Washington Capitals for a preseason game on Sept. 23 after graduating in the spring. “Maybe get a little bit stronger and bigger, for sure, but I think he’s got the skill set for the pro game, and he’s going to transition well whenever he makes the choice.”

The choice is still a little ways off, and while the Flames would have loved to have him for this season, Gaudreau says the organization has been accommodating about his desire to return to BC.

Good thing, because he’s looking forward to playing with his little brother, a freshman this year, for the first time since their Gloucester Catholic team — coached by their father — met Delbarton in the 2010 New Jersey state championship game. Johnny had a goal in the game, and Matt had an assist, though Delbarton ran away with a 7-2 victory.

“Unfortunately we lost, but that was one of my favorite seasons ever. I got to play with (Matt) and a bunch of other guys we’re close to,” Gaudreau said. “I know it’s going to be the same thing (at BC). We’re really close; we’re only 13 or 14 months apart. I think just being around him is going to make my attitude better around the rink. I used to get a little homesick every once in a while, missing the family and stuff like that, but having him around is going to make everything easier.”

It’s hard to think Johnny Gaudreau needs anything to be easier, considering the pure aptitude he shows in most facets of the game. He wants to improve his defensive abilities, and he said his summer sojourn to the Flames’ development camp helped with that.

But if it gets any easier for Gaudreau to excel, it’s going to be hard for anyone, or anything, to stop him.

As long as he keeps starting his days with a good breakfast.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @A_Merritt
Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com